If you don’t know what to do in Calais after having driven under the Channel Tunnel, make an escape to the Cité de la dentelle et de la mode. You will feel immediately happy!
Born in Spain, 120 years ago, Cristobal Balenciaga, remains one of the most celebrated XX th Century French, Haute couture designers. Hubert de Givenchy, who worked with him until the end of his house in 1968, convinced the Cité de la dentelle et de la mode in Calais, to organize a show of his most significant lace and tulle dresses. This is a good excuse to discover a fairly obscure museum celebrating the city of Calais most famous industry. And the result is a moving plunge into the past glories of couture. And a nice way for the town where you enter the Channel Tunnel to escape from its new fame as the roaming immigrants’ unhappy city.
Givenchy is fascinating in the film shown at the entrance of the exhibit, when he tells us about visiting the Balenciaga studios at 15. He had taken the train from Beauvais to Paris on his own and walked into the couture house with a carnet of drawings. He still remembers the red leather lined elevator, the pretty models running around and the beahouse like atmostphere of the fashion house on 10 avenue George V. And Renée, the head of the house, who told him he had nothing to do there. « Balenciaga was very human and very religious (catholic) and loved giving advice to young couturiers such as Courrèges and Ungaro ».
The show starts with Spanish dresses for 1927. At the time, Balenciaga used to come to Paris to see the Lanvin and Chanel shows and went back home in San Sebastian with some models that he deconstructed. The Spanish civil war made him move ot Paris in 1936.
There are many black lace dresses (influenced by Spanish fashion) in the show including the Baby Doll model which Annabel Buffet (painted by her husband Bernard Buffet) used to wear in 1957. But also ball gowns worn by such as Grace de Monaco and Queen Sophie of Spain or Fabiola of Belgium. One of the most beautiful evening dresses is still the property of Givenchy : a dress embroidered with silk flowers from Algiers made in 1967. Many documents lent by the Balenciaga foundation are intresting including a bill form 1945 mentioning a tax of 5% for French entraide. When you think that the war was hardly over, it is quite astonishing.
The museum itself is interesting with demonstrations of how lace machines function every hour on the hour. An apprentice needs seven years to master the 11 000 threads that cross 4 000 on the Leavers and Jacquard weaving machines conceived in the 19 th century in England and in Lyon. Linen from Normandy, cotton, wool and silk threads are all used to create lace which was made fashionable in the Renaissance and is still exported around the world. Today, Calais counts 1 200 lace specialists who still work on 100 year old machines. From Jeanne d’Arc on church clothes to children dresses, paintings and thousands of samples, the collection of the Cité de la dentelle is fabulous, and on the way for anyone who travels to Britain from France. (Balenciaga is until September 27, but the Cité is open all year round)
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